Monday, 28 July 2008

After the honeymoon period

Well, I’m back from honeymoon (a relaxed week in the highlands of Scotland) and I must say I’m deeply reluctant to resume the ‘normal service’ on this blog to which I referred just before going away.

One reason is that I now have to learn how to be a husband - a very new thing, and challenging at my age. But secondly, a week away from not only blogging but even news about the Church of England has made me realize it is a basket case.

One thing that brought this home to me forcefully on my return to the internet is just seeing people saying things like they are ‘backing the Archbishop of Canterbury’. What is extraordinary about this statement is not that people should be backing him but that there should be any need to say they are. It is very much like Labour politicians ‘backing’ Gordon Brown. The very fact that they are doing this says that the party is in trouble.

Of course, troubles come and go with any institution, but the Anglican Communion is sunk and the Church of England is sinking.

Think of it. Hundreds of bishops have refused to go to the great Lambeth Conference — the gathering that for over a hundred years has had the social status amongst Anglicans of a Buckingham Palace tea party. The sheer fact that you were invited meant you were ‘something’. And despite what people have said since 1998 about its resolutions having no ‘binding force’, they have been of monumental significance in representing and determining the ‘mind’ of Anglicanism.

If the fact that there are so many unfilled places at the Canterbury tables doesn’t convince you the party is over, the popularity of the alternative party in Jerusalem should. Imagine if in the nineteen thirties the bishops of Africa had told the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, “Thank you, but we will not be coming to England.” It is, of course, unthinkable —an impossibility. And that it can happen now is simply a demonstration of how things have changed.

But there is, of course, more, for at the heart of the troubles of the Anglican Communion is its own incoherence. What we are seeing played out is the difference between two concepts of ‘Church’ — one based on ‘strict inclusivisim’, the other on ‘open confessionalism’. I freely admit to inventing these terms, but they are an attempt to describe briefly a complex association of apparently contradictory ideas.

The ‘strict inclusiveness’ of what must now be acknowledged as the ‘Anglican centre’ — focussed around Canterbury and the traditional structures of the institution — is neither the preserve of Liberals nor Conservatives. Rather, it is the principle that, irregardless of the individual foibles of bishops, teachers, clergy and congregations in a particular branch of the denomination, that branch remains part of the fellowship and no challenges can be admitted to the relevant institutional prerogatives or authority.

Thus a branch of Anglicanism may be asked not to elect, say, a divorced practising homosexual as a bishop, it may be told that if it does this it will ‘tear the fabric’ of the Communion, it may be observed to act disingenuously (to put it mildly) in this matter, but if the election and consecration of that bishop goes ahead, then the Anglican ‘tent’ must be readjusted to keep that branch on the inside, and nothing must be done, or allowed to be done, which might challenge the structural integrity of that branch. To ‘cross boundaries’ is to sin against the whole Church — and the reason is obvious: it challenges the positioning of the ‘tent’ itself.

The Church of England, however, from which the Anglican communion arose, recognizes within its ‘formularies’ that unity is found in truth. And so this attempt to hold the Communion together on the basis of ‘strict inclusivism’ was always bound to do one of two thing: to fail, or to change the very nature of Church. Actually, it seems currently to be doing both. The last of the old Lambeth Conferences took place in 1998. What we are seeing unfold now (in every sense) is the first Conference of ‘New Anglicanism’, akin to ‘New Labour’ in English political terms. Whether GAFCON turns out to be the equivalent of the SNP remains to be seen.

All this would be bad enough. But it is equally clear that the Church of England is washed up at home — and for much the same reason, namely that it is ‘incoherent’. Earlier this month, the General Synod also voted to change the boundaries of the ‘tent’, but this time (ironically in the circumstances) to narrow them. Anglo-Catholics, and Traditionalist Evangelicals, are now out in the cold. Without any embarrassment on the part of some, they are being told the game is up: it is time to fit in or ship out.

Of course, it might be observed that they had ‘shipped out’ in terms of their attitude many decades ago. And it is true that many of them played out their role on the boundaries of the institution, rather than at its centre. But ‘inclusiveness’ kept them in, and provided they played along with institutional authority a ‘live and let live’ attitude prevailed.

That, however, can no longer be the case because the institutional structures will not allow it. You can disbelieve the fundamentals of the faith, but if you will acknowledge the bishop you can remain. But if you will not acknowledge the bishop, then the stricter your adherence to the faith the more you are a threat, rather than a benefit, to the institution. So the institution will obviously sacrifice believers who rebel rather than discipline unbelievers who conform.

For a body built on ‘faith’, however, this is clearly madness. If the label gives no indication of the doctrinal contents of the tin, who is going to trust the ingredients? “If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” And if people invited to their local Church of England church for, say, ‘Back to Church Sunday’ don’t know what is to be believed by a member of that body, why will they come — and what are they supposed to do when they get there?

The institutional answer is ‘belong’ — provided you accept the authority of the institution. But that simply cannot work at the local level: at the level where the Church invisible becomes the visible Church of Article 19, where the pure word of God is preached in specific sermons, and where the sacraments are duly ministered to particular individuals. There, the gospel cannot be ‘whatever you take to be good news’, and morality cannot be ‘whatever lifestyle you understand as faithful’. Look at the Epistles!

The Church of England as it currently stands is self-deluded and divided. There is nothing by way of a doctrinal ethos holding it together and the Evangelical Conservatives are on their way out, handicapped, as Bishop Andrew Burnham has recently observed, by their failure to develop an ecclesiology that extends beyond the local gathering (in marked contrast to their supposed-exemplars in Sydney).

The institutionalists, meanwhile, don’t mind what you do, so long as you obey. I was very struck recently by a comment made by Bishop Tom Wright of Durham in his scathing critique of GAFCON: “As I look around not only my own diocese but also the larger Church of England, I see many clergy and laity who are not from an ‘evangelical’ stable but who are cheerfully preaching the gospel ...”. In other words, ‘All is essentially OK at the practical level — so who needs GAFCON here?”

Now I am currently reading through John Piper’s analysis of Wright’s work in The Future of Justification, and whilst I am not in a position to say whether Piper has got it entirely right, it seems pretty clear that according to Wright’s understanding ‘preaching the gospel’ is precisely what most of us, and especially most of us Evangelicals, are not doing. That, surely, is the implication of his own radical take on the ‘New Perspective’ on Paul: since the time of Augustine, ‘justification’ has been misunderstood, and the gospel is not ‘how we are put right with God’ (contra Two Ways to Live, Journey Into Life or even Alpha). Rather, it is the proclamation that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord, with justification and personal salvation as a by-product (albeit an indispensable one).

Conveying this message is fundamental to Wright’s own agenda, which is fair enough, but how can he then say “I see many clergy and laity ... cheerfully preaching the gospel,” when most of them do not share his own understanding of ‘the gospel’ (or even understand it) and many would fundamentally disagree?

The answer is, surely, it doesn’t matter — because it is not what Wright actually means. What he means is (I suspect), “I see many clergy and laity ... quietly getting on with the job as they understand it without challenging the authority of the institution.” It is ‘strict inclusiveness’ which allows the institution to function. By contrast, the ‘open confessionalism’ of GAFCON and others, which on the one hand requires specific beliefs and on the other hand disregards the boundaries, is an intolerable threat.

The answer? There is no answer I can see at the moment, except that globally Anglicanism will devolve into a number of competing ‘states’. Locally, at home in England, watch the recruitment of young male evangelicals into the Anglican ministry. When that becomes vanishingly small, we will know that it is time for something new to happen. What that may be, I have no idea.

What I will say, in conclusion, is that our current dithering is not inevitable. Something could be done, simply, easily and quickly. But that must wait for another posting — and that may be quite a while.

John Richardson
28 July 2008

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  1. Dear John,

    I'm delighted your marriage seems to be in better shape than the Church of England!

    I'm sad too, but also relieved, that you have finally diagnosed the CofE as a terminal basket case. No doubt there are, there have been, and there will be, fine evangelical ministers in it who are a great blessing to their churches and wider evangelicalism. But, once again, Big Brother Anglicanism raises its head and demands conformity to matters which are unscriptural; matters to which those with a mind enlightened by Christ should say, 'No.'

    Where then does that leave you? I'm sure you won't mind me saying that you have the most developed theology of a state church of any Anglican evangelical I know! Yet current developments cast you to the fringes of the CofE, and maybe fling you out of it altogether. If so, there is no real prospect of any church you then become part of also being the state church. Whither then your thoughts on the relationship between state and church and your part in it?

    Do you hope for some continuing Anglican church in England? If so, why not link up with the Free Church of England - Evangelical Connexion, rather than making a new denomination? If there is a new denomination will it be for Anglo-Catholics too? If so, do you see them sharing the same soteriology and, if not, how much does this matter?

    Do you need bishops at all? If not, there is always the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales, or the International Presbyterian Church if you want to be connectional and The Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches, the Union of Evangelical Churches or the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, if you don't.

    The fact that these are all open questions highlights the absence of a coherent ecclesiology amonst Anglican evangelicals. There is no alternative ecclesiology shared by Reform or the Church Society, for instance, which can spring into action and provide replacement structures. All very ad hoc. All very Anglican, perhaps. But unfortunately all very unhelpful in the present crisis.

    On the other hand, nothing might change. After all, is there much difference between being under a bishop who doesn't believe fundamental truths assumed by any evangelical and being under a bishop in the reverse missionary position? One of these problems seems to be root and the other branch.

    I look forward to reading your thoughts on some of these things in the weeks and months ahead!

    Yours in Christ,

    John Foxe (Hertford)

    PS Nonconformists are also good at having an underdeveloped ecclesiology. Not all, though, and the alternative to no ecclesiology isn't Rome, either.

  2. John, you can't have your wedding cake and eat it. The Anglican system is fundamentally a hierarchical one in which "no challenges can be admitted to the relevant institutional prerogatives or authority", even if this hierarchy has become somewhat loose. You have to choose between staying within this system and leaving it for a more congregational type of system, in which your congregation can choose to be conservative evangelicals and others can be as liberal as they want. But you can't mix the systems - it has been tried many times but doesn't work.

    I am working on a post looking at these issues more deeply.

  3. Peter

    I'm sorry, but the idea that institutional authority and, indeed, territorial integrity should take priority in Anglicanism over faithfulness to the gospel would be just stupid. It would also be counter to the traditions of the Catholic Church.

    The alternatives are not either 'my bishop right or wrong' or 'congregationalism'. Read what Hooker has to say to bishops on the dangers of them ignoring their presbyters (his term) or acting as if the way they behave cannot ever call into question their right to govern the Church - or indeed the place of episcopacy itself in the Church. It is in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. You will find he and I are pretty much in agreement on this one.

  4. It is all very well for Hooker to say things about how a bishop must behave, but that is empty if there are no sanctions on bishops who misbehave. And there have always been bishops and archbishops who set themselves up as mini-popes and persecute presbyters under them who are faithful to the gospel, from William Laud right up to Katharine Jefferts Schori. Hooker's system may be an ideal one, but it is not a stable and workable one. See also my comment at MetaCatholic.

  5. True there have always been dodgy Bishops, the Lord himself warned about such things and we see it modeled throughout the OT.

    But the highly robust view of Bishops (centre of unity etc.) comes mostly from Cyprian of Cathage. But (with all his faults) had no time for heretics and Bishops did interefere with heretic Bishops back then. Way back in his day Bishops interefered with geographical boundaries. Just think what would happen in the Roman or Eastern Orthodox Churches if there was a Gene Robinson! - John said that institution over faithfulness is stupid. I'd say it's actually idolatrous. We've been working through Amos and it all sounds frightenly familier - to link into another posting, what is God doing - I think, in part, lovingly judgeing us to bring us to repentance.

    Darren Moore